The week that Joe Biden sideswiped the idea of federal student loan forgiveness, calling it “socialism” was the same week that Matt Gaetz’ wingman and party pal Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty to six felonies including sex trafficking of a child. The two stories might seem unrelated, but they’re not. Both of them concern broke students.
According to a draft confession letter Greenberg wrote and the accounts of several of the women, he and Gaetz met up and had sex with young women he found on Seeking.com, a dating site for “sugaring,” or dating where one person compensates the other with cash or gifts. (The site had been called Seeking Arrangement, but rebranded itself as just Seeking in 2018.) Whether or not sugaring is sex work has been hotly debated, but in any case it’s close to ubiquitous on college campuses. Venmo records show that Gaetz sent money to Greenberg, who’d then send money to college-aged women (and one 17-year-old girl) annotated “Tuition” and “School.”
The case rings awful to me not because of what Gaetz—who has has denied any wrongdoing and said that he “never, ever paid women for sex”—allegedly did, but because his political career and the political party he supports, which once claimed to care about “family values,” helped create the economic circumstances in which the decision to fuck men like him for tuition, or to cover the rent, is rational.
Minimum wage increases, subsidized child-care programs, and more state and federal funding for college would all decrease desperation—and that is what the Gaetzes of the world don’t want, politically or personally. Life is better for such men when there are lots of struggling women. Some of them need $1,200 in “Tuition” enough to take a drug-fueled trip to the Bahamas with men they don’t like and who treat women viciously. Some will consider a sex party in a Florida condo if they can keep going to school.
I’ve been a sex worker for 10 years, which means people think I think about sex all the time and in reality I think about money all the time. I think it’s obvious that more people are selling sex now. Some argue that it’s because the internet has lowered the barriers to entry, but it’s hard to get good data to say for sure as stigma, criminalization, and politicization make sample populations and study methodologies suspect. The other obvious reason that more people are going into sex work is because the rent, and sometimes the loan payments, are too damn high. It wouldn’t be the first time.
As poverty exploded after World War I in Weimer-era Berlin, sex work was everywhere. In typical German fashion there were names and designations for all the different types of workers, from state-sanctioned Kontroll-girls to gangs of homeless Wild-boys. Half-Silks, perhaps the rough equivalent of “sugar babies” today, were often factory or shop girls, women with full-time jobs who worked Friday nights. They couldn’t quite live on their salaries and saw one or two clients a week to scrape by.
It was disingenuous then, and remains so now with Seeking, to say that these quasi-amateurs were doing sex work for reasons other than economic need. Seeking can call it sugaring, with its implications of frivolity and decadence, but it’s hard to attribute the site’s popularity to anything but financial hardship.
“Gaetz and his party helped create the economic circumstance in which the decision to fuck men like him for tuition, or to cover the rent, is rational.”
Seeking puts the wandering hand of the market all over women’s bodies but it’s also where people with few resources can get paid and be able to afford tuition, or rent, or diapers. No one loves that you have to fuck a man older than your dad to do so, but: Tuition. Rent. Diapers. Seeking has a relatively low barrier for entry. Unlike escorting, which requires social media savvy and often a website, Seeking feels like Tinder: Take some pics of your body and face, barf up some words about hypergamy, and you’re in business.
The connection between higher ed and Seeking isn’t a bug. The site courts students. Sign up with a college email and verify your student ID and your free account becomes Premium. Seeking lists which colleges have the most sugar babies on their promotional materials, along with info about rising college costs. The site took out billboards targeting prospective babies: Happy 18th Birthday, Meet Your New Daddy.
Seeking doesn’t have to work hard to sell the idea that you need money for school. College costs have ballooned out of control. I know two sex workers who took up the job after racking up a quarter of a million dollars in debt, with minimum monthly payments high enough to swallow a life whole—debt that can keep you up at night, or give you a reason to ingratiate yourself to powerful men.
People choose to do sex work, whether through “arrangements,” Only Fans or straight escorting, mainly because it is the best choice for economic stability, and they often begin because of the desperation brought about by economic instability. This was definitely true for me: I began doing sex work so I wouldn’t need to withdraw from school. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with doing sex work to alleviate poverty that isn’t wrong (or wronger!) with most types of work. I’m a sex worker, and I am no longer struggling. I like that about my life.
I used to think that a writing career was my off ramp from sex work. But I will make $300 for this piece, which took the better part of two days if you add up the hours. That’s $38,000 a year, without benefits, if I could maintain that output of writing (and pitching and invoicing and everything else that goes along with writing) for five days a week, every week. That doesn’t go far in New York City, where I live. Maybe if I spent more time on writing, those numbers could go up and I’ve asked myself many times (right now!) if I’m selling myself short by not leaning into journalism, but so far I can’t see getting out of a field where I know I can pay all my bills to get into one where very few people seem to know that.
So I want Seeking to stay in business. Not because it’s a good site: It’s full of scammers, time wasters, cheapskates, carrot danglers, and broke entitled boomers with chips on their shoulders. It’s blatantly racist and whorephobic. But sex work has persisted through history and tracks with income inequality. Driving it underground just makes the labor conditions that much worse for the workers involved in it.
When talking about sex work, language confers a lot. I don’t like Matt Gaetz but I am troubled by how coverage of his case has come to include wording like “child rapist” and “pedophile.” There’s a difference between what it is that the feds might be able to nail him on and the complete picture. Flattening his alleged predation into SVU tropes steers us away from the question of why 17-year-olds make dating profiles for old men and put them online with cute selfies.
The phrase sugar baby jams together two retrograde ideas about women and money: that women need it for extras, or sugar, and that getting it from rich men necessitates infantilization and dependence. Both these concepts scrape away bargaining power and labor rights, which are already in short supply in the sex economy. It also, as Jessie Sage points out, allows clients to maintain and believe that they are not clients. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith put it in Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, “Sometimes the centrality of money is… deliberately hidden because to do so serves a political purpose.”
Gaetz insists that he didn’t pay for sex, which suggests that he merely sent payments to his friend to pass on to women half his age who he then had sex with, which is totally different. The fact that he used Venmo, an app with a public feed where you must write a description of What the Money Is For, sends me. I will never get over it. Imagine doing the dumbest thing that could get you in the most trouble: now imagine making a flyer about it and thumb tacking it in the break room. Matt Gaetz, folks!
The power inherent in the economic control that Gaetz and Greenberg exerted cannot be overlooked. Just listen to the women, who say things like “I wasn’t really in a position to say I didn’t want to do this. I wasn’t in my right mind. I was in over my head and it was kind of scary.”
As long as lawmakers keep treating poverty like a personal failing that you can hustle your way out of, there will always be young women doing the best they can with g-strings as bootstraps. The answer is not to crack down on Seeking, nor was it to ban Backpage. It’s not even to punish or humiliate Republican creeps and hypocrites.
The answer is to elect leaders who will pass laws that protect students and workers from being one textbook or busted transmission away from the economic edge.